The characters in The Trojan Women, whether Trojan or Greek, are motivated by their bonds to their family and culture. For the Trojans especially, who have lost everything—their city, their husbands, their freedom—a clear moral system gives their lives some structure and regularity. Hecuba, who has arguably fallen the farthest in fortune’s favor, clings most tightly to these ideas of family obligation and civic duty. Much of her hatred for Helen comes from a perceived lack of these values, and her interactions with Menelaus are colored by her hopes that he will remain faithful to his personal integrity and pride and kill Helen for her disloyalty. By attempting to honor their families, their friends, their husbands, and their cities, the women of The Trojan Women regain a measure of control over their lives even as most of their agency is taken away from them.
The Trojan Women emphasizes the importance of a person’s service to their family, friends, country, and personal honor. In the play, a person’s pride in who they are and where they’ve come from is the backbone of society itself, and a man or woman’s duty to their families, cultures, and religions is frequently used to justify the actions of the characters. Cassandra uses her sense of duty to Agamemnon, who now technically owns her, as a way to cope with her enslavement. She lights a torch “for the bed of virginity as man’s custom ordains” continuing and imploring everyone to “dance for my wedding, / for the husband fate appointed to lie beside me.” By looking at her predicament as a wedding, she’s able to see it as an obligation she must keep and honor, and not as a tragic violation she must endure. Although both Helen and Menelaus are Hecuba’s enemies, Hecuba so deeply values social codes and moral obligations that she demands that they abide by them as well. She argues with Menelaus, encouraging him to kill Helen and show the world that “the price of adultery is death.” She thinks Menelaus also needs to kill Helen to protect his own honor. She tells him, “Be true to your / high reputation and to Hellas,” while the Chorus implores, “Menelaus, keep the ancestral honor of your house.” Hecuba also encourages Menelaus to kill Helen because he will be honoring his fallen comrades. She encourages Menelaus to “Be true to the memory of all your friends she murdered,” and murder her in return.
Although the gods are shown to be as emotional and changeable as mortals, they are nonetheless afforded great respect throughout the play. Characters see themselves as having a duty to honor and respect the gods, and the gods, in turn, expect to be honored and respected, becoming upset when they feel that a mortal has insulted them. Athena is upset that Ajax assaulted Cassandra in her temple, desecrating it and disrespecting her power. As a result, with Poseidon’s help, she decides to disrupt the Greeks’ journey home, turning it into a ten-year voyage. Later, when Helen claims that she was too overwhelmed by Paris and Aphrodite’s proposal to remain faithful to her husband, and argues that any god would have been affected just as deeply, Hecuba accuses Helen of disrespecting the gods. The Trojan Queen “defend[s] the honor of the gods, and show[s] / that [Helen] is a scandalous liar,” clearly seeing duty to, and respect for, the gods to be of utmost importance.
Helen is a clear example of someone the other characters see as having no sense of integrity or honor. From the gods to Hecuba to her ex-husband, everyone around her sees her actions as a betrayal of their society’s most basic shared values. Other characters argue that she is purely opportunistic, a fair-weather friend who has brought death to thousands because she is not loyal to anyone but herself. Poseidon, in his very first speech, remarks that “Helen of Sparta [is] treated—rightly—as a captive slave,” implying she deserves harsh treatment. Hecuba accuses Helen of only supporting whichever side was winning the Greek-Trojan conflict. She observes, “When the reports came in that Menelaus’ side / was winning, you would praise him, simply to make my son / unhappy at the strength of his love’s challenger, / forgetting your husband when the luck went back to Troy. You worked hard: not to make yourself a better woman, / but to make sure to be on the winning side.” Hecuba also accuses Helen of not going to extreme enough measures to escape Troy and return to her husband, wondering “when were you never caught in the strangling noose, / or sharpening a dagger? Which any noble wife / would do, desperate with longing for her lord’s return.” She certainly does not support the Greek side, but Hecuba nonetheless would view Helen’s continued support of her home as less despicable than her constantly changing allegiances.
Although Hecuba’s home has been destroyed, her husband and sons killed, her title taken from her, and her body claimed by a stranger, she remains stoic and prideful, dedicated to the same principles that governed her life before it fell apart. She values honesty and personal integrity, and remains deeply dedicated to her family, to her city, and to the gods that rule her world. Almost everyone else in the play follows the same principles that she has set out, careful to honor their families (living and dead), the gods above, and their own personal dignity. In a society that has been utterly destroyed, an adherence to tradition allows the women of Troy to maintain some semblance of order and normalcy in the face of utter chaos. Hecuba’s hatred of Helen seems to come as much from her perceived lack of loyalty as it does from her role in the Trojan War. Helen, who has already helped destroy a nation, now threatens to destroy a belief system and code of conduct that are the only relics, aside from the women themselves, of their beloved Troy.
Duty, Obligation, and Integrity ThemeTracker
Duty, Obligation, and Integrity Quotes in The Trojan Women
Poseidon: You hated Troy once; did you throw your hate away
and change to pity, now its walls are black with fire?
Athena: Come back to the question. Will you take counsel with me
and help me gladly in all that I would bring to pass?
Poseidon: I will indeed; but tell me what you wish to do.
Are you here for the Achaeans’ or the Phrygians’ sake?
Athena: For the Trojans, whom I hated this short time since,
to make the Achaeans’ homecoming a thing of sorrow.
Poseidon: This is a springing change of character. Why must
you hate too hard, and love too hard, your loves and hates?
Athena: Did you not know they outraged my temple, and shamed me?
Poseidon: I know that Ajax dragged Cassandra thence by force.
Athena: And the Achaeans did nothing. They did not even speak.
The mortal who sacks fallen cities is a fool
if he gives the temples and the tombs, the hallowed places
of the dead, to desolation. His own turn must come.
Hecuba: Who was given my child? Tell me, who shall be lord
of my poor abused Cassandra?
Talthybius: King Agamemnon chose her. She was given to him.
Hecuba: Slave woman to that Lacedaemonian wife?
My unhappy child!
Talthybius: No. Rather to be joined with him in a dark bed of love.
Hecuba: She, Apollo’s virgin, blessed in the privilege
the gold-haired god gave her, a life forever unwed?
Talthybius: Love’s archery and the prophetic maiden struck him hard.
Hecuba: Dash down, my daughter,
the twigs of your consecration,
break the god’s garland to your throat gathered.
Talthybius: Is it not high favor to be brought to a king’s bed?
O Mother, star my hair with flowers of victory.
This is a king I marry; then be glad; escort
the bride—and if she falters, thrust her strongly on.
If Loxias lives, the Achaeans’ pride, great Agamemnon
has won a wife more fatal than ever Helen was.
Since I will kill him, and avenge my brothers’ blood
and my father’s in desolation of his house.
But I leave this in silence and sing not now the axe
to drop against my throat and other throats than mine,
the agony of the mother murdered, brought to pass
from our marriage rites, and Atreus’ house made desolate.
I am ridden by god’s curse still, yet I will step so far
out of my frenzy as to show our city’s fate
is blessed beyond the Achaeans’. For one woman’s sake,
one act of love, these hunted Helen down and threw
thousands of lives away. Their general—clever man—
in the name of a vile woman cut his darling down,
gave up for a brother the sweetness of children in his house,
all to bring back that brother’s wife, a woman who went
of her free will, not caught in constraint of violence.
The Achaeans came back Scamander’s banks, and died
day after day, though none of them sought to wrench their land from them
nor their own towering cities. Those the war god caught
never saw their sons again, nor were they laid to rest
decently in winding sheets by their wives’ hands, but lie
buried in alien ground; while all went wrong at home
as the widows perished, and couples who had raised in vain
their children were left childless, no one left to tend
their tombs and give to them the sacrificial blood.
For such success as this congratulate the Greeks.
No, but the shame is better left in silence, for fear
my singing voice become the voice of wretchedness.
The Trojans have that glory which is loveliest:
they died for their own country. So the bodies of all
who took the spears were carried home in loving hands,
brought, in the land of their fathers, to the embrace of earth
and buried becomingly as the rite fell due. The rest,
those Phrygians who escaped death in battle, day by day
came home to happiness the Achaeans could not know;
their wives, their children. Then was Hector’s fate so sad?
You think so. Listen to the truth. He is dead and gone
surely, but with reputation, as a valiant man.
How could this be, except for the Achaeans’ coming?
Had they held back, none might have known how great he was.
my lord’s presence the tribute of hushed lips, and eyes
quietly downcast. I knew when my will must have its way
over his, knew also how to give way to him in turn.
Men learned of this; I was talked of in the Achaean camp,
and reputation has destroyed me now. At the choice
of women, Achilles’ son picked me from the rest, to be
his wife: a murderer’s house and I shall be his slave.
If I dash back the beloved memory of Hector
and open wide my heart to my new lord, I shall be
a traitor to the dead love, and know it; if I cling
faithful to the past, I win my master’s hatred…
I hate and loathe that woman who cast away the once
beloved, and takes another in her arms of love.
Even the young mare torn from her running mate and teamed
with another will not easily wear the yoke. And yet
this is a brute and speechless beast of burden, not
like us intelligent, lower far in nature’s scale.
He must be hurled down from the battlements of Troy.
Let it happen this way. It will be wiser in the end.
Do not fight it. Take your grief nobly, as you were born;
give up the struggle where your strength is feebleness
with no force anywhere to help. Listen to me!
Your city is gone, your husband. You are in our power.
How can one woman hope to struggle against the arms
of Greece? Think, then. Give up the passionate contest.
Don’t…do any shameful thing, or any deed of hatred.
And please—I request you—hurl no curse at the Achaeans
for fear the army, save over some reckless word,
forbid the child his burial and the dirge of honor.
Be brave, be silent; out of such patience you’ll be sure
the child you leave behind will not lie unburied here,
and that to you the Achaeans will be less unkind.
O splendor of sunburst breaking forth this day, whereon
I lay my hands once more on Helen, my wife. And yet
it is not so much as men think, for a woman’s sake
I came to Troy, but against that guest proved treacherous,
who like a robber carried the woman from my house.
Since the gods have seen to it that he paid the penalty,
fallen before the Hellenic spear, his kingdom wrecked,
I come for her now, the Spartan once my own, whose name
I can no longer speak with any happiness,
to take her away. In this house of captivity
she is numbered among the other women of Troy, a slave.
And those men whose work with the spear has won her back
gave her to me, to kill, or not to kill, but lead
alive to the land of Argos, if such be my pleasure.
And such it is; the death of Helen in Troy I will let
pass, have the oars take her by seaways back to Greek
soil, and there give her over to execution;
blood penalty for friends who are dead in Ilium here.
Hecuba: O power, who mount the world, wheel where the world rides,
O mystery of man’s knowledge, whosoever you be,
named Zeus, nature’s necessity or mortal mind,
I call upon you; for you walk the path none hears
yet bring all human action back to right at last.
Menelaus: What can this mean? How strange a way to call on gods.
Hecuba: Kill your wife, Menelaus, and I will bless your name.
But keep your eyes away from her. Desire will win.
She looks enchantment, and where she looks homes are set fire;
she captures cities as she captures the eyes of men.
We have had experience, you and I. We know the truth.
She mothered the beginning of all this wickedness.
For Paris was her child. And next to her the old king,
who would not destroy the infant Alexander, that dream
of the firebrand’s agony, has ruined Troy and me.
This is not all; listen to the rest I have to say.
Alexander was the judge of the goddess trinity.
Pallas Athena would have given him power, to lead
the Phrygian arms on Hellas and make it desolate.
All Asia was Hera’s promise, and the uttermost zones
of Europe for his lordship, if her way prevailed.
But Aphrodite, marveling at my loveliness,
promised it to him, if he would say her beauty surpassed
all others. Think what this means, and all the consequence.
Cypris prevailed, and I was won in marriage: all
for Greek advantage. You are not ruled by barbarians,
you have not been defeated in war nor serve a tyrant.
Yet Hellas’ fortune was my own misfortune. I,
sold once for my body’s beauty, stand accused, who should
for what has been done wear garlands on my head.
My son was handsome beyond all other men.
You looked at him, and sense went Cyprian at the sight,
since Aphrodite is nothing but the human lust,
named rightly, since the world of lust begins the god’s name.
You saw him in the barbaric splendor of his robes,
gorgeous with gold. It made your senses itch. You thought,
being queen only in Argos, in little luxury,
that once you got rid of Sparta for the Phrygian city
where gold streamed everywhere, you could let extravagance
run wild. No longer were Menelaus and his house
sufficient for your spoiled luxurious appetites.
So much for that. You say my son took you away
by force. What Spartan heard you cry for help? You did
cry out? Or did you? Castor, your brother, was there, a young
man, and his twin not yet caught up among the stars.
Then when you had reached Troy, and the Argives at your heels
came, and the agony of the murderous spears began,
when the reports came in that Menelaus’ side
was winning, you would praise him, simply to make my son
unhappy at the strength of his love’s challenger,
forgetting your husband when the luck went back to Troy.
You worked hard: not to make yourself a better woman,
but to make sure always to be on the winning side.
You claim you tried to slip away with ropes let down
form the ramparts, and this proves you stayed against your will?
Perhaps. But when were you ever caught in the strangling noose,
or sharpening a dagger? Which any noble wife
would do, desperate with longing for her lord’s return.
Yet over and over again I gave you good advice:
“Make your escape, my daughter; there are other girls
for my sons to marry…Let the Greeks, and us,
Achaeans! All your strength is in your spears, not in
the mind. What were you afraid of, that it made you kill
this child so savagely? That Troy, which fell, might be
raised from the ground once more? Your strength meant nothing, then.
When Hector’s spear was fortunate, and numberless
strong hands were there to help him, we were still destroyed.
Now when the city is fallen and the Phrygians slain,
this baby terrified you? I despise the fear
which is pure terror in a mind unreasoning.
What would the poet say,
what words might he inscribe upon your monument?
“Here lies a little child the Argives killed, because
they were afraid of him.” That? The epitaph of Greek shame.
You will not win your father’s heritage, except
for this, which is your coffin now: the brazen shield.
O shield, that guarded the strong shape of Hector’s arm:
the bravest man of all, who wore you once, is dead.
How sweet the impression of his body on your sling,
and at the true circle of your rim the stain of sweat
where in the grind of his many combats Hector leaned
his chin against you, and the drops fell from his brow!
Take up your work now; bring from what is left some fair
coverings to wrap this poor dead child. The gods will not
allow us much. But let him have what we can give.
That mortal is a fool who, prospering, thinks his life
has any strong foundation; since our fortune’s course
of action is the reeling way a madman takes,
and no one person is ever happy all the time.
The gods mean nothing except to make life hard for me,
and of all cities they chose Troy to hate. In vain
we sacrificed. And yet had not the very hand
of a god gripped and crushed this city deep in the ground,
we should have disappeared in darkness, and not given
a theme for music, and songs of men to come.
You may go now, and hide the dead in his poor tomb;
he has those flowers that are the right of the underworld.
I think it makes small difference to the dead, if they
are buried in the tokens of luxury. All that
is an empty glorification left for those who live.